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When plans go awry: What is leadership derailment? Feasibility

It is a fact of much of the discourse on leadership development that there is far more discussion of what needs to happen for things to go right, than there is for what should happen when things go wrong. Leadership development is often discussed in aspirational and inspiring tones – ‘empowering individuals to achieve their full potential’; ‘supplementing advanced skills to be a truly great leader’. By contrast, the idea of leadership derailment – the term used when leadership derailment can be said to have simply gone wrong in some way – is given far shorter shrift.


This is surprising when you think about it. A leader or potential leader that has derailed has evidently demonstrated many of the same leadership attributes as any other potential leader. They have climbed the organisational ladder, added to their leadership skills, gained experience in different positions.


Consequently, a derailed leader can be seen as a failure of leadership development efforts in general. If the derailment is due to some plateauing in the progress made, for example, it might raise questions about the nature and intensity of a leadership development programme’s approach. If the derailment has occurred because of some personal fault or character defect, it raises questions over the basis on which the leader was identified in the first place. If a derailed leader fails to build working relationships, it could suggest that skills that should have been a focus have remained deficient.


Leadership derailment can frequently be a surprise for an organisation, and has the potential to have far-reaching and damaging consequences. It might represent a considerable failure of investment – in terms of time and development expenses – and it may only be evident once a person is already in a leadership position.


These possible consequences – perhaps amply highlighted throughout the corporate failures and controversies of the global financial crisis – underline the problem with focusing only on the positives of leadership development. Acknowledging that the best laid plans of leadership development can sometimes go astray is an important first step in creating effective preventative measures against leadership derailment.

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